Wednesday, April 9, 2014

QbA, Kabinett, Spaetlese….No, there is not just 1, but there are 4 Different Wine Classification Systems in Germany

Picture: VDP President and Winemaker Steffen Christmann, Weingut A. Christmann, Wine Journalist Stuart Pigott, and VDP Vice-President and Winemaker Wilhelm Weil, Weingut Weil, Presenting the new VDP Classification at the 4th Riesling Rendezvous in Seattle

See:
Steffen Christmann (Weingut A. Christmann) and Wilhelm Weil (Weingut Robert Weil) Presented the New Wine Classification of the VDP, Germany

Although many people think that there is only one wine classification system in Germany – the classification system of the Law of 1971 – this is not correct. True, the classification system of the Law of 1971 is the standard classification system in Germany and the vast majority of winemakers in Germany use this approach. A large number of winemakers, however, have moved away from the standard, in particular the producers of premium and ultra-premium wines. Importantly, the powerful group of German elite winemakers – the VDP – has conceived its own classification system. Other winemakers moved to a zero classification system – no classification, an approach very familiar in the New World. Finally, many winemakers have developed their own classification system.

This posting attempts to provide an overview of what is out there in the German wine market.

A. The Standard Classification System: The Law of 1971 – A Pyramid of Ripeness at the Center

The Ripeness at Harvest

The basic wine classification system in Germany is the classification system of the wine law of 1971. At the center of it is the sugar content of the fruit at the point of harvest. The higher the sugar content in the grapes at the point of harvest, the higher the classification of the wine.

The Germans use the Oechsle scale to measure the sugar in the grapes. Based on the Oechsle scale, German wine is classified into nine quality groups, ranging from Tafelwein with the minimum Oechsle degree of 44 to Trockenebeerenauslese with a minimum Oechsle degree of 150. The minimum Oechsle degrees differ somewhat between Germany’s wine regions and between red and white wine. The numbers indicated below are those for the white wines from the Mosel valley.

Tafelwein (Table wine) - the lowest German quality class; has to have at least 44 degrees of Oechsle in the vineyard.

Landwein (Country wine) - 47 degrees of Oechsle at the minimum.

Less than 5% of wine produced in Germany is classified as Tafelwein and Landwein

Qualitaetswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (QbA wine) means a quality wine from one of the thirteen specified German wine regions; close to 50% of German wine is QbA wine - 50 degrees Ochsle.

Importantly, these 3 groups of wines can be chaptalized (Chaptalization: sugar is added to the juice before fermentation to increase the alcohol level after fermentation, commonly used in all wine producing regions of the world). The chaptalization adds body to these otherwise lighter wines and makes them great simple food wines. The EU wine law limits the amount of additional alcohol that can be achieved through this cellar technique to between 3.5% by volume (28 grams of alcohol per liter) and 2.5% by volume (20 grams of alcohol per liter), depending on the region.

Kabinett - 67 degrees Oechsle.

Spaetlese means late harvest but this are simply wines made from grapes with a higher level of Oechsle - 76 degrees - and not necessarily wine made with grapes harvested late in the season.

Auslese - 83 degrees of Oechsle.

Beerenauslese - 110 degrees of Oechsle.

Eiswein - icewine, the same minimum level of 110 degrees of Oechsle.

Trockenbeerenauslese - 150 degrees of Oechsle.

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller and Carl von Schubert from the Maximin Gruenhaus Estate in Washington DC. Carl von Schubert belongs to the Group of German World Class Winemakers who are not Members of the VDP

See also:
Carl von Schubert from the Maximin Gruenhaus Estate Returned a Favor: With his Wines in Washington DC (and in Seattle), USA

Sugar in the Grape and Sweetness of the Finished Wine

In contrast to a widespread believe, these 9 quality categories do not reflect the sweetness in the finished wines. Except for the noble-sweet wines, German wine, ranging from Tafelwein to Auslese, can be either sweet or dry. Why is that so?

A bit of background: The fermentation of grape must is a process in which sugars, naturally present in grape juice, are transformed into alcohol and carbon dioxide by the action of yeasts. During fermentation, the sugar content of the must declines, while the alcohol content increases and the CO2 disappears. This process stops automatically when the alcohol level in the wine has reached around 13 to 15 percent of the volume.

There is a straightforward link between the sugar content in the fruit and the resulting alcohol level in the wine.

For a wine with 13.0 percent alcohol, for example, one needs grapes at the 90 degrees Oechsle level. This would be a dry wine, without any remaining sweetness. 90 degrees Oechsle is well beyond the Spaetlese category and high up in the Auslese category. Thus, all of Germany’s Spaetlese wines and most Auslese wines, if left to Mother Nature only, should be dry. You have to go beyond that - say 110 degrees Oechsle - for the fermentation to stop naturally and sugar to remain in the wine. This is the case with the group of noble-sweet wines (Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese, Eiswein). All German wines up to the Auslese category are potentially bone-dry.

Fruity-Sweet Kabinett, Spaetlese and Auslese Wines - How?

In reality there is plenty of sweet-style German wine at the Kabinett, Spaetlese and Auslese levels, and very popular in particular in Germany’s export markets. How do winemakers achieve this? There are two methods used by German winemakers to generate residual sugar in such wine:

First, stopping the fermentation; this is typically done through a skillful manipulation of the fermentation process with sulfur and temperature control. The winemaker needs to follow closely the fermentation process and must make sure that it comes to a stop at the desired level of sweetness.

Second, the other technique is to let the wine first fully ferment and then add to the dry and fully fermented wine sterilized grape juice (called in German "Suessreserve"). Here the winemakers lets the wine fully ferment to produce a dry wine and then experiments with different amounts of Suessreserve to achieve the desired level of sweetness in the final product. Ideally, the Suessreserve comes from the same wine. It needs to be sterilized so it does not begin to ferment after it is added to the wine.

The Noble Sweet Wines

Noble sweet wines, however, is a different story. The fruit has such a high sugar level at harvest that there is nothing you can do preventing the wine to remain sweet. These noble-sweet wines are produced either from botrytised grapes or grapes that were harvested during frost, more specifically,

First, the fog in the autumn mornings at German river banks produces a fungal infection, botrytis cineria (noble rot), which removes the water in the grapes and adds a unique flavor to the grape; and

Second, the frost late in the year, which also removes the water in the grapes when the temperatures fall (but does not produce the botrytis taste).

In both cases, the sugar content of the grape is exceptionally high at the time of the harvest and mother nature is unable to ferment all the sugar. These are the famous sweet dessert wines in Germany: Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese, Eiswein.

Vineyard: Einzellage and Grosslage

The 1971 wine law also has elements of a terroir concept, but this is on the backburner. There are Grosslagen (collective vineyards) and Einzellagen (single vineyards). For the average consumer, Grosslage sites became virtually indistinguishable from Einzellage sites. Only few experts would know, for example, that Hochheimer Daubhaus is a Grosslage and Hochheimer Hoelle a Einzellage. Would you?

B. The VDP Classification – The German Elite Winemakers: The Burgundian Approach with the Terroir Concept at the Center

VDP winemaker and President of the Rheingau VDP Wilhelm Weil: “The new VDP Wine Classification System is basically a matrix classification.”

On one achse you find the different quality levels of the wines, along the Burgundian terroir approach, with estate wines, village wines, first growth (premier cru) wines and great growth (grand cru) wines.

Following their colleagues in the Bourgogne, the terroir principle has taken center stage in the VDP classification. Effective with the 2012 harvest, the VDP classification has the following 4 quality layers (In brackets, the equivalent quality classes in the classification system of the Bourgogne):

• VDP.Grosse Lage (Grand Cru in Burgundy)
• VDP.Erste Lage (Premier Cru in Burgundy)
• VDP.Ortswein (Village level in Burgundy)
• VDP.Gutswein (Bourgogne régional in Burgundy)

Note that for some legal reasons, the VDP has started to use the terms Grosse Lage, Erste Lage, Ortswein and Gutswein with the pre-fix VDP.

On the other achse, you find the sweetness levels: Trocken, Kabinett, Spaetlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese as well as Eiswein. Please note that in the new VDP classification system the Prädikats have lost their critical importance that they have in the traditional classification system of 1971 and that they have changed their meaning. In the VDP classification system, they have become an indicator for the sweetness range of the finished wine, while in the traditional classification they are an indicator of the sugar content of the grapes at harvest. Generally, in the new VDP classification system, the Prädikats are to be used exclusively for wines with residual sweetness, “thereby enabling the Prädikats to resume their traditional meaning”, as stated by the VDP.

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller with Wilhelm Weil at Weingut Robert Weil in Kiedrich

See:
Tasting with Wilhelm Weil the 2010 Weingut Weil Wines in Kiedrich, Germany
Visiting Wilhelm Weil at his Weingut Robert Weil in Kiedrich, Germany
Rheingau Riesling Gala 2013 at Kloster Eberbach, Germany

VDP.Grosse Lage - The Peak of the Pyramid

VDP.Grosse Lage is the peak of the terroir-based pyramid, equivalent to Grand Cru in the Bourgogne. These are the very best vineyards of Germany. Note: For a Grosse Lage vineyard, like in the Bourgogne, you don’t use the village name on the label, just the name of the vineyard.

Maximum yield is at 50hl/ha. The grapes have to be harvested by hand while the sugar content of the grapes at harvest has to be at least at Spätlese level. The grapes can be fermented in a dry, fruity-sweet and noble-sweet style.

A dry wine from a VDP.Grosse Lage is designated VDP.Grosses Gewaechs and labeled Qualitätswein Trocken. A Grosses Gewaechs wine is from 2012 on the ultra premium dry wine made from a Grosse Lage vineyard.

A fruity or noble sweet wine from a VDP.Grosse Lage is labeled with one of the traditional Prädikats: Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein or Trockenbeerenauslese.

VDP.Erste Lage - First Class

VDP.Erste Lage designates first-class vineyards with distinctive characteristics, equivalent to Premier Cru in the Bourgogne. Erste Lage vineyards provide optimal growing conditions, as evidenced over a long period of time.

They are planted with traditional varieties. Maximum yield is at 60hl/ha. The grapes have to be harvested by hand while the sugar content of the grapes at harvest has to be at least at Spätlese level.

A dry wine from a VDP.Erste Lage is labeled Qualitätswein trocken. Note that there is no “VDP.Erstes Gewaechs” designation.

A fruity or noble sweet wine from a VDP.Erste Lage is labeled with one of the traditional Prädikats: Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein or Trockenbeerenauslese.

Third: VDP.Ortswein - Sourced from Superior Soils

A VDP.Ortswein originates from a village's best vineyards that are planted with grape varieties typical of their region, equivalent to a village wine in the Bourgogne. Maximum yield is at 75hl/ha.

A dry VDP.Ortswein is labeled Qualitätswein Trocken.

A VDP.Ortswein with residual sweetness is labeled with one of the traditional Prädikats.

Fourth: VDP.Gutswein – Entry Level

VDP.Gutsweine are the entry-level wines in the VDP's hierarchy.

Generally, the Prädikats are to be used exclusively for wines with residual sweetness. Gutsweine, however, are excluded from this general rule as it applies only to the top 3 quality categories. Thus, we might see Gutswein Kabinett trocken and Gutswein Spaetlese trocken in the shelves.

Key Elements of the VDP Classification System to Remember

First: Use of the Prädikats Kabinett, Spaetlese and Auslese only for fruity-sweet wines - As a major innovation, the VDP members have dropped the traditional Prädikats for dry wine. Only wines that have a noticeable level of sweetness carry the traditional Prädikats like Kabinett, Spaetlese or Auslese. Thus, if you see Spaetlese on the label of a VDP member wine, you can be sure that it is a fruity-weet Spaetlese. “Spaetlese Trocken” does not exist anymore among the VDP members.

Second: The Prädikats Kabinett, Spaetlese and Auslese no longer indicator of ripeness at harvest, but indicator for sweetness of the finished wines - In the 1971 Classification, the Prädikats Kabinett, Spaetlese and Auslese are an indicator of ripeness at harvest. Thus, for instance, you can have a fruity-sweet Spaetlese and a dry Spaetlese. In the VDP classification, the Prädikats Kabinett, Spaetlese and Auslese are an indicator of sweetness of the finished wine (and not of the ripeness at harvest).

Third: All dry wines up to the highest quality level labeled Qualitaetswein Trocken - All dry wines up to the highest quality level – the Grosses Gewaechs wines from a Grosse Lage vineyard – are labeled Qualitaetswein (QbA) Trocken. A wine made from grapes harvested at Spaetlese level and fully fermented to complete dryness, for example, is marketed as QbA wine. And the level of quality would be indicated by the terroir concept (Gutswein, Ortswein, Erste Lage, Grosse Lage).

This of course does not make it easier for wine consumers to read and understand German wine labels, because the Qualitaetswein denomination has a completely different meaning in the standard classification system. There, it indicates that this wine is an entry-level wine of basic quality. In the VDP classification, Qualitaetswein does not mean anything, as in the VDP system even the ultra-premium dry wines are labeled as a QbA.

Fourth: Grosses Gewaechs ultra-premium dry wine - The dry counterpart of the fruity-sweet Spaetlese and Auslese wines of the VDP are the dry Grosses Gewaechs wines. These are ‘Grand Cru” wines made from grapes from a Grosse Lage vineyard, harvested at Spaetlese or Auslese level in terms of sugar content and fully fermented so that they become dry. The Grosse Gewaechs label is thought to resemble the Grand Cru designation in neighboring France. Here and there, these wines are dry.

Obviously, the Grosses Gewaechs label has become obsolete. Grosse Lage Trocken says it all. You do not need the predicate Grosses Gewaechs. But the Grosses Gewaechs label is well established in the market and recognized by wine consumers.

Fifth: No single vineyard wines below Grosse Lage and Erste Lage - In the VDP classification, only Grosse Lage and Erste Lage vineyards appear on the label. If a wine comes from a vineyard that is not in the exclusive circle of Grosse and Erste Lage, the label will not carry any vineyard name. Instead, it will be either a village wine (with just the village and the name of the winery on the label) or an Estate wine (with just the name of the winery on the label).

See also:
Approaches to Classifying German Wine: The Standard Approach (the Law of 1971), the VDP Approach and the Zero Classification Approach
The VDP - the Powerful Group of German Elite Winemakers - Refines its Classification System, Germany
Stepping up: From 3 … to 4 Quality Levels - The New Classification of the VDP, Germany
Steffen Christmann (Weingut A. Christmann) and Wilhelm Weil (Weingut Robert Weil) Presented the New Wine Classification of the VDP, Germany

C. No Classification – The Example of Cult Winemaker Markus Schneider

Moving on, there are two more groups of winemakers, although probably less relevant for the world market. One is the group of winemakers that have abandoned any classification, following the New World approach. One of them is cult winemaker Markus Schneider in the Pfalz. His wines were served to President Obama and Michelle Obama by Chancelor Merkel at the State Dinner during President Obama's recent visit to Berlin.

Markus Schneider markets all his wines as Qualitaetswein, without any reference to the predicate level and without any reference to the vineyard(s) were the grapes come from. Here are some of Markus Schneider’s wines: Blackprint, Rotwein Alte Reben, M Spaetburgunder, Tohuwabohu, Chardonnay, Riesling and Kaitui.

Picture: Wilhelm Weil, Weingut Robert Weil, Kai Buhrfeindt, Grand Cru Weinrestaurant, Christian G.E. Schiller, Markus Schneider, Weingut Markus Schneider in Frankfurt am Main

See:
The Wines Chancelor Merkel Served President Obama and Michelle Obama in Berlin (and the Wines she did not Serve), Germany
German Riesling and International Grape Varieties – Top Wine Makers Wilhelm Weil and Markus Schneider at Kai Buhrfeindt’s Grand Cru in Frankfurt am Main, Germany 

D. Innovative Classification Winemakers – The Example of Christian Stahl

Finally, there are a number of winemakers who have introduced their own classification system. One of them is Christian Stahl in Franken.

With regard to classifying his wines, Christian Stahl markets all his wines as Qualitaetswein. And he has developed his own, innovative classification system, playing with his name Stahl (= steel).

Christian Stahl groups his wines into 3 categories:

Top: Edelstahl (= precious steel)
Middle: Damaszener Stahl
Entry: Feder Stahl

Also, Christian Stahl rejects the terroir principle. You will never find a vineyard name on his bottles. Instead, he gives his wines colorful names, such as Literweise (by the liter), Rauschgift (drugs) and Rosenrot (red like a rose).

See:
The Bistronomics Cuisine of Chef Christoph Kubenz and the Wines of Winemaker Christian Stahl at Restaurant schauMahl in Frankfurt, Germany

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller with Christian Stahl in Frankfurt am Main

schiller-wine - Related Postings

German Wine Basics: Sugar in the Grape - Alcohol and Sweetness in the Wine

Visiting Wilhelm Weil at his Weingut Robert Weil in Kiedrich, Germany

Tasting with Wilhelm Weil the 2010 Weingut Weil Wines in Kiedrich, Germany

Wine Consumption: Do Germans Drink Sweet or Dry Wine?

German Wine Basics: Grosse Lage and Grosslage (and Grosses Gewaechs)

VDP.Grosses Gewaechs, Erstes Gewaechs, Spaetlese/Auslese Trocken, … Labeling Dry Ultra-Premium Wines in Germany

German Wine Basics: Sugar in the Grape - Alcohol and Sweetness in the Wine

German Spaetlese Wines Can Come in Different Versions. I Have Counted Five.

When Americans Drink German Wine - What They Choose


Video: How to Pronounce German Wine - Simon Woods' Enhanced Version


Approaches to Classifying German Wine: The Standard Approach (the Law of 1971), the VDP Approach and the Zero Classification Approach

The VDP - the Powerful Group of German Elite Winemakers - Refines its Classification System, Germany

Stepping up: From 3 … to 4 Quality Levels - The New Classification of the VDP, Germany

Steffen Christmann (Weingut A. Christmann) and Wilhelm Weil (Weingut Robert Weil) Presented the New Wine Classification of the VDP, Germany

Carl von Schubert from the Maximin Gruenhaus Estate Returned a Favor: With his Wines in Washington DC (and in Seattle), USA

The Wines Chancelor Merkel Served President Obama and Michelle Obama in Berlin (and the Wines she did not Serve), Germany

German Riesling and International Grape Varieties – Top Wine Makers Wilhelm Weil and Markus Schneider at Kai Buhrfeindt’s Grand Cru in Frankfurt am Main, Germany

 The Bistronomics Cuisine of Chef Christoph Kubenz and the Wines of Winemaker Christian Stahl at Restaurant schauMahl in Frankfurt, Germany

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